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The Cybernetics Moment

, 352 pages

6 halftones, 4 line drawings

September 2017



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The Cybernetics Moment

Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age

Choice 2015 Outstanding Academic Title


Outstanding Academic Title, Choice

Cybernetics—the science of communication and control as it applies to machines and to humans—originates from efforts during World War II to build automatic antiaircraft systems. Following the war, this science extended beyond military needs to examine all systems that rely on information and feedback, from the level of the cell to that of society. In The Cybernetics Moment, Ronald R. Kline, a senior historian of technology, examines the intellectual and cultural history of cybernetics and information theory, whose language of "information," "feedback," and "control" transformed the idiom of the sciences, hastened the development of information technologies, and laid the conceptual foundation for what we now call the Information Age.

Kline argues that, for about twenty years after 1950, the growth of cybernetics and information theory and ever-more-powerful computers produced a utopian information narrative—an enthusiasm for information science that influenced natural scientists, social scientists, engineers, humanists, policymakers, public intellectuals, and journalists, all of whom struggled to come to grips with new relationships between humans and intelligent machines.

Kline traces the relationship between the invention of computers and communication systems and the rise, decline, and transformation of cybernetics by analyzing the lives and work of such notables as Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Herbert Simon. Ultimately, he reveals the crucial role played by the cybernetics moment—when cybernetics and information theory were seen as universal sciences—in setting the stage for our current preoccupation with information technologies.

Ronald R. Kline is the Bovay Professor in History and Ethics of Engineering at Cornell University. He is the author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist and Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America.

"Nowhere in the burgeoning secondary literature on cybernetics in the last two decades is there a concise history of cybernetics, the science of communication and control that helped usher in the current information age in America. Nowhere, that is, until now... Readers have in The Cybernetics Moment the first authoritative history of American cybernetics."

"[A]n extremely interesting and stimulating history of the concepts of cybernetics... This is a book for everyone to read, relish, and think about."

"As a whole, the book presents a comprehensive in-depth retrospective analysis of the contribution of the American scientific school to the making, formation, and development of cybernetics and information theory. An unquestionable advantage of the book is the skillful use of numerous bibliographic sources by the author that reflect the scientific, engineering, and social significance of the questions being considered, competition of ideas and developments, and also interrelations between scientists."

"Dr. Kline is perhaps uniquely situated to take on so large and complicated [a] topic as cybernetics... Readers unfamiliar with Wiener and his work are well advised to start with this well-written and thorough book. Those who are already familiar will still find much that is new and informative in the thorough research and reasoned interpretations."

"The most comprehensive intellectual history of cybernetics in Cold War America."

"The book will be most valuable as historical background for the large number of disciplines that were involved in the cybernetics moment: computer science, communications engineering, information theory, and the social sciences of sociology and anthropology."

"Ronald Kline’s chronicle of cybernetics certainly does what an excellent history of science should do. It takes you there—to the golden age of a new, exciting field. You will almost smell that cigar."

"Kline’s The Cybernetics Moment tracks the rise and fall of the cybernetics movement in more detail than any historical account to date."

"Kline does a valuable service tracing the contrasting fates of cybernetics and information theory."

"... The knowledge offered in The Cybernetics Moment will greatly contribute to any reader seeking an enhanced or more comprehensive understanding of our present-day discourse surrounding information, while also providing a detailed and well-warranted history of the science of cybernetics."

"After reading his book, it is impossible to ignore the contribution that cybernetics has made to computational models and techniques used in numerous academic disciplines, and to how so many of these disciplines— from biology and engineering to social sciences and the humanities—operated even in quantitative and social history. With The Cybernetics Moment, Kline has moved cybernetics out of the shadows of intellectual history into the limelight."

"... valuable addition to the history of cybernetics..."

"This is a book certain to become an instant classic for historians working in the increasingly broad range of scientific and technological disciplines over which the cybernetics moment has cast its long shadow."

"... Kline's book presents an invaluable resource that sheds light on the conceptual foundations of some of the most convincing investigations of interactions between human civilization and planetary ecologies."

"This is a book certain to become an instant classic for historians working in the increasingly broad range of scientific and technological disciplines over which the cybernetics moment has cast its long shadow."

" The Cybernetics Moment relies on a deep and thorough mining of primary historical sources, coupled with a broad and contextual review of the secondary historical literature and an appropriate level of attention to related popular culture narratives. With both a historian's attention to detail and contingency and a sociologist's understanding of discourse and meaning, Kline demonstrates in this rich story that there is more than we thought behind the decades-long adoption of computational models, techniques, and visions by the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities."

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